One of the aims of the British Government in the Gambian, Sierra Leone, Gold Coast and Nigeria was to rule as far as possible through the chiefs and their councils. The system of government in these colonies, therefore was a mixture of direct and indirect rule. As we have seen, the central government was in the hands of the Governor, who was assisted by an executive and a Legislative Council. Local government was largely in the hands of the tribal authorities under the supervision of British District Officers. This policy of indirect rule was tried out by Lord Lugard in Northern Nigeria between 1900 and 1906. Lugard made the following comment on essential principle of the system :
‘The Government utilizes and works through the native chiefs and avails itself of their intelligence and powers of governing, of the Fulani caste in particular, but insists upon their observance of the fundamental laws of humanity and justice.’
When the protectorate of Northern Nigeria came into being on January 1st, 1900, with Lugard as High Commissioner, only a small part of the present Northern Region was controlled. However, as a result of military actions during the next three years the country between the rivers Niger and Benue and the northern frontier was brought to heel and a form of administration established. The North was divided into provinces, and Residents who were responsible to the High Commissioner were appointed to take charge of them.
Lugard at this critical period lacked staff for the direct administration of the country. He was also short of money. He was therefore pleased to find that the Fulani Emirs had a well-organized system of government of their own. They had their own courts of law and Native Treasuries. They arranged for the collection of taxes and had their hierarchy of officials. Lugard, therefore made full use of the knowledge and administrative skills of the Emirs as rulers and allowed them considerable latitude in the administration of their Emirates, provided they obeyed the protectorate laws. The role of the Resident was to advise the Emirs of his province and ensure that they implemented these laws.
In the non-muslem parts of the North Lugard’s policy was on similar lines – to seek out the chief or other indigenous authority and confirm him in his rule subject to the Resident’s advice. This policy was always successful, because some tribes did not have a chief of the type he was looking for, and the early administrators made serious mistakes in imposing the rule of a chief on them.
Under the system of indirect rule, the population of the Emirates continued to be subject to Muslem law, administered by the traditional Muslem courts. Whenever such court was found to be efficient, it was established by the Resident by warrant and became a recognized part of the Protectorate’s judicial system. Similarly in non-moslem areas the Resident set up native court by warrant to administer the local customary law. Provincial courts, presided over by the residents, however were set up to deal with cases falling under the new protectorate laws or involving non-natives. A Supreme court was also established in which English law and procedure were followed.
The complicated Fulani system of taxation was replaced by a single tax levied on each village. Lugard divided the revenue from this between the Protectorate Government and the Emirs, and used the Government’s share to develop health, education, roads, railways and agriculture. The reminder was left at the Emirs’ disposal.
Lugard felt strong about this. He considered that, if their Governments were to develop and progress, it was important for the Emirs to handle large sums of money.
The protectorate Government, however, was greatly handicapped by lack of money so that Lugard was unable to develop the services which were needed in the country. Taxes had been regularized but could not be increased and there was little or no income from customs duties. The North’s produce was exported through Lagos, but it was the Colony and Protectorate of Southern Nigeria which benefited. They retained almost all the custom dues. It was for this reason that Lugard wanted one administration in the whole of Nigeria. A step towards this goal was made in 1906 when the colony of Lagos and the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria were merged; and the final stage was reached in 1914 when the Northern and Southern Provinces was amalgamated.
As Governor-General of all Nigeria, Lugard now attempted to apply the principle of indirect rule to the South, but he was only partially successful. The areas constituting the former Eastern and Mid-Western Regions had since 1900, been subject to direct administration by ‘Native Councils’, which were native courts with legislative and executive as well as judicial powers.